Choki Wangmo 

GELEPHU—Right after office hours, Tashi Wangdi and his three team members from the forest range return to the office with their bedding sets. As the conflict with elephants in Gelephu escalated in recent days, the quick response team has to tackle at times  four human-elephant conflicts a night. 

Since 2021, from March to November every year, the 12-member team from the range office divide into three groups, taking turns to guard the town from elephant menace. The task has become even more challenging as the tusker forage for food and water, that has become scarcer due to rapid encroachment and habitat fragmentation.

“Rangers face the risk of being attacked by wild animals or armed poachers. This can be a traumatic experience that can have a lasting impact on the ranger’s mental and physical health,” Tashi Wangdi, a senior forestry ranger said.

The forestry development in Bhutan has come a long way since its establishment in the early 1950s and rangers have a big role in the success. The forest department started from a tent in Changidaphu with a few officials to one of the largest departments today.

As the pressure on nature increased, rangers’ roles have also evolved from patrolling almost 20 times a month to conducting synchronised patrolling with rangers from India to promote the cross-border anti-poaching programme, and curb timber smuggling, and wildlife trade.

They spend about three months above 4,500 meters during the cordyceps collection season and comb the thick tropical jungles, often coming in conflict with poachers and illegal timber traders.

A senior ranger from the eastern forest range office said that rangers fear losing life to wildlife and poachers while patrolling in and around the international borders. “I understand that my work in conservation involves considerable risk.”

Rangers are still on duty at the entry point of the international border gate although the Covid-19 pandemic is long over.

A female ranger said that they need a risk allowance since most of them take risks patrolling day and night at the international border areas. “We work under really challenging circumstances, but we don’t receive much recognition for it.”

In more than two decades (1990-2017), Bhutan lost 13 rangers while 11 were injured in the line of duty. A recent death was reported in Punakha where a ranger fell into Phochhu while patrolling the river in a boat.

The situation has improved compared with the past decades, says Dorji Penjor, a retired ranger. When he first joined the Thimphu territorial forest division in 1998, things were grim.

Rangers now use a variety of technological tools, such as drones, GPS trackers, and night-vision goggles to help them patrol wildlife reserves and protected areas. 

“We use the SMART patrolling programme, which is helpful for gathering precise data on natural biodiversity,” said one of the rangers.

The biggest issue, however, is the battery’s quick depletion at high altitudes.

They say that a whole new skill set is needed while undertaking tasks like ecological surveys.

“We work closely with local communities to raise awareness of the importance of wildlife conservation. We do this through education programmes, community outreach, and by working with local leaders,” Tashi Wangdi said.

The Sarpang range office has implemented the SAFE system strategy to tackle human-elephant conflicts.

WWF-Bhutan played a pivotal role in the capacity development of the rangers. 

Wildlife Practice Lead with WWF-Bhutan, Nagdrel Lhamo, said that the office started conservation work in Bhutan by providing training opportunities for rangers in 1977. “Since then, we have supported rangers in various aspects of capacity-building, providing equipment and field gears, infrastructure such as guard posts, office equipment, and rangers’ quarters for surveillance.”

The office provided technology such as SMART, eDNA, and drones for efficient patrolling and monitoring.

In collaboration with the Department of Forests and Park Services, more than 1,000 rangers in the country were trained in the Ranger Code of Conduct, which helped enhance their legal capacities in combating illegal wildlife trade. 

WWF-Bhutan country representative, Chimi Rinzin said that going forward, the office will support building the capacity of rangers on inclusivity. This means that the role of the rangers in balancing the welfare of wildlife and communities is enhanced. “Rangers play a critical link between people and wildlife.”

To achieve this, a ranger’s curriculum was developed in collaboration with the South African Wildlife College. 

The first World Ranger Day was observed in 2007 on the 15th anniversary of the founding of the International Ranger’s Federation (IRF). Founded in 1992, the IRF is a non-profit organisation that supports the crucial work that the world’s park rangers do in preserving natural and cultural heritage.

Additional reporting by Neten Dorji and Lhakpa Quendren 

In observation of World Ranger Day, this article is funded by WWF-Bhutan